“Toss the box idea.”
In the late 50s (1957-58?), there was a man (Henry) in his (also) late 50s. He was born close to the turn of the 20th century, wow, 112 years ago or so.
Henry was a morning coffee friend of my father’s, in a small town in the high desert of northwestern Arizona. Henry was an inventive type and during his lifetime had already witnessed many new inventions, among them sliced bread in 1928. It was claimed “the greatest forward step in baking since wrapping bread” (nowadays, new inventions compare themselves by saying “the greatest thing since sliced bread).”
Prior to that, loaves of dough were just hand shaped and baked, but being uneven in size and shape they didn’t fit into the slicer, so dough loafs were placed into rectangle loaf pans and could then all fit into the slicing machine. The shape of modern bread slices became squares and sandwiches became popular.
This gave rise to Henrys big idea – did I mention among other things he was a hobby farmer; he raised tomatoes. Not a few plants, and not just regular tomatoes. He grew giant tomatoes, delivered fresh in season and very competitive because in those days shipping fresh food was not what it is today. Henry could service about a hundred miles around with fresh succulent giant tomatoes. This included Las Vegas Nevada and Phoenix Arizona as well as a dozen other small towns in Northern Arizona, all with small family cafes and family restaurants.
This is why Henry built a large green house just a couple miles outside of town. Keep in mind, this was a desert town in northern Arizona – dry, hot and water was valuable. The green house was not a hot house, it was a cool house with A/C (also new in Henry’s lifetime) (mine too) to protect the tomatoes from the sun, and modulate the temps in winter as well. This extended his growing season to nearly nine months for tomatoes.
He was moderately successful at this. His selling point was that one giant tomato slice would cover the entire sandwich and then some, and each tomato could make several such sandwiches, more than justifying the price by pound with less waste.
But Henry himself didn’t like the “extra tomato sticking out the side of the sandwich.” It made it hard to get a good first bite and you had to nibble your way through just tomato into the bread.
“Wouldn’t it be great if the tomatoes were square, then they would be the same as the bread,” Henry concluded, and he was off and running.
I saw the first prototype tomato square making device in my father’s workshop, and heard the entire story. My father laughed as he explained Henry’s idea, but also said he thought it was good and timely and really a fun idea. My father was a creative woodworker/mechanical-minded man himself. As Henry’s friend and now confidant, my father was engaged to make working models of the mechanism for “squaring the round.” I was not allowed to discuss this cuisine-changing invention with anyone, and the workshop was under lockdown. Meaning, I couldn’t have my friends over to work on contraptions of our own, fix our bikes, etc.
Here was the plan: A square box-like thing, light enough to not break the plant stem, clear enough to allow natural light in, perforations so the plant could breath but so placed as to not leave dimples or scars on the tomato, with a support wire to hold it in place from a frame above while the tomato grew and was forced into the corners of the box.
A hole in the top for the stem, and a hinged side that would allow the box to open in two halves to get the tomato out, then used on another waiting sprout. The box had to allow maximum tomato growth, but restrict its shape into a neat square. Weeks of experiments went on.
One day in my lunch box at school, I opened it up and to my surprise saw a bologna, cheese and “square” tomato sandwich. Yes, it did actually work, it actually worked delightfully well. For a few months we had square tomatoes. So, why aren’t there square tomatoes in the stores everywhere?
Right off, every one wanted a square tomato. Demand was great, actually so great, Henry found the cost of labor out-paced profits. To form, harvest, crate and handle these tomatoes drove the cost to double a regular giant tomato. It was a novelty item at best. The great giant square tomato went the way of the Edsel.
My mother suggested they just make the boxes and sell them to individuals, maybe as kits, maybe even mail order.
Well, as a young artist observing all this, I wondered if the boxes would work on oranges, or roses or tree trunks. Maybe pumpkins and water mellons, just think! I wondered if there were other boxes, other shapes, other systems of containment. Containment is one of those useful words like fastening devices or repurpose or enlightenment. Those types of words carry ideas both good and not good.
Eighty five years ago, the thinking of sliced bread was thinking outside the box. Fifty five years ago growing square tomatoes was thinking outside the box; now, round sliced bread to fit round tomatoes would be thinking outside the box. It is the box, the parameters that give us control. It is acting on ideas that I saw, use of imagination, sense of fun, but the big thing was the box.
I began to see the “control” box. It didn’t set in right then, but that is when the seed was planted. People build boxes to control growth. Invisible boxes are created by individuals, groups, societies, governments; one of the most powerful boxes is social. We grow to our own perceived invisible walls, and we think we see those because our environment points to them. Others point to them in keeping with their opinion of where the box wall is. Others, making square tomatoes out of our natural shapes.
By the time I witnessed the great square tomato adventure I had already been helped into my own box, my own perception of limits and shaping. I didn’t know the saying “outside the box” – it was not common or even existent then. Great art masters set the box size big.
It is hard to think outside the boxes, or to get out of the boxes, and even if we just throw them out, there are the environmental, the governmental, the educational boxes. It is like those dolls with a small doll inside a larger one, and that one in a larger one, and then more and more; somehow when we see those dolls we know it represents many things.
Here is what I have learned: I don’t want a square tomato, I would rather have round sliced bread. Perhaps we can’t really change the shape of mother nature, but we can contribute to changing the way in which we perceive her.
So for now I’m careful of the rules of the power boxes above me. I mostly ignore the rules of the social boxes around me; I try to help lift the trapped people in whatever boxes are below me.
Challenge the perceptions and, above all else, the way beyond the boxes is to be a natural tomato and make the bread change. So, thinking outside the box is actually just thinking outside the current box and getting to the next one. After all, isn’t all the art we make actually commentary on living among the boxes, or escaping them, or ignoring the boxes. All stories only work if they are defined by the confines of a box. The really good images and paintings are about all that, and that is what people recognize in good art: the “invisible” boxes.
We don’t have to change the world to change the view, but if we change the viewpoint, maybe it helps change the world.